Donald Trump has often argued recently that China is betting on Joe Biden in the November US presidential election. However, officials have come to Beijing to support Trump for another four years.
Interviews with nine current and former Chinese officials indicate a change in mood in favor of the seated president, despite spending a lot of time in the past four years blaming Beijing for everything from U.S. trade imbalances to Covid-19. The main reason? The belief that the benefits of the erosion of the American post-war alliance network would outweigh China's harm from ongoing trade disputes and geopolitical instability.
While officials shared concerns that US-China tensions would increase regardless of who was in the White House, they largely broke into the camps of those who stressed geopolitical gains and those who were concerned about trade. Biden, the former vice president, was seen as a traditional democrat who would try to support the ragged multilateral relationship in the United States and reduce trade breaks.
"If Biden is elected, it could be more dangerous for China as he will work with allies to target China as Trump destroys US alliances," said Zhou Xiaoming, a former Chinese trade negotiator and former deputy in Geneva. Four current officials agreed with this assessment, saying that many members of the Chinese government believed that a Trump victory could help Beijing by weakening what they saw as Washington's greatest advantage in controlling China's growing influence.
The general assumption underlying her views was that little could be done to stop the decline in relations between the two largest economies in the world. As a result, China needed to accelerate its efforts to develop high-quality indigenous industries, expand into developing markets, and look for ways to work with nations in Europe and Asia to counter any US isolation efforts.
During Trump's tenure, Beijing has come to realize that opposition to China enjoys deep support from both parties in an otherwise polarized Washington. The outbreak of the corona virus, which was first discovered in downtown Wuhan, has only exacerbated American views of Beijing.
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"I don't think the elections will fundamentally change the relationship. The deep feeling in the US is that the US should include China," said Zhou. "Whether Trump wins or Joe goes to Washington, it gets worse."
Chinese officials, keen to avoid repeating their surprise when Trump upset former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016, pushed for American contacts to find out who would win. Senior members of the American business community in Beijing say that the reach of well-connected Chinese friends, who in some cases have not contacted them for years, has suddenly increased in the past few weeks.
Although the Republicans have traditionally emphasized economic relations with China, Trump has moved the party in a more confrontational direction and challenged the country in virtually every area of the relationship, from China's territorial claims in the South China Sea to trade, public health, human rights, and technology . Democrats have largely supported these efforts, helping to pass laws supporting demonstrators in Hong Kong and providing more military aid to Taiwan.
Even Biden, who had long supported an "engagement" strategy with China, took a tougher tone as the Democratic President's primaries heated up. Over the past few months, Biden has described President Xi Jinping as a "thug", praised the "extraordinary bravery" of Hong Kong's democracy demonstrators and accused China of "predatory" trade practices. He described the mass detention of Uyghur Muslims in the far west of Xinjiang as "incomprehensible".
Although Chinese officials continue to avoid directly criticizing Trump, internet censors have spread more nationalist criticism of the United States online. A foreign diplomat said China's State Department was "combative" and "angry" with US officials.
"Trump has destroyed a lot of goodwill," said Wang Huiyao, adviser to the Chinese cabinet and founder of the Center for China and Globalization. "At the beginning of the trade war, there were a lot of people who were for the United States, but they now understand hardliners."
Trump tried to use his reputation for confronting China in the elections, despite early praising Xi for dealing with the Corona virus outbreak. In April, he told Reuters that "China will do anything to make me lose this race," and without evidence, claimed that Beijing's response to the virus was based on the desire to see it lose in November.
China's Foreign Ministry reaffirmed its longstanding position that it never tries to interfere in other nations' domestic affairs. In a possible sign that both sides are trying to deal with the disputes in the election year, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo should meet top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Hawaii later Tuesday, two people familiar with the plans.
A Chinese official said the outcome of the election is irrelevant as relations will not improve in any way. China's best hope is that the situation will not deteriorate further.
Some in Beijing are astonished at Trump's long-term impact on US stability, pointing to growing coronavirus cases, protests against police discrimination, and speculation about whether the pandemic election could end in chaos. "The US as we know it may no longer exist," said Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat and interpreter for Deng Xiaoping.
Trump's "America First" policy has created similar tensions in capital cities that have traditionally been friendlier to the US, imposing tariffs on key trading partners, pushing allies to spend more on collective defense, withdrawing from multilateral agreements, and aiding Britain's breach from the European Union. Chinese officials privately recognize that a democratic government could prove more powerful if it works with allies to present a united front.
Even if a Biden presidency turned out to be more difficult for Beijing, two current Chinese officials said he could open up other areas of cooperation, such as restoring U.S. participation in the Paris climate deal, when he negotiated as vice president under then president Barack Obama was.
"He supports work on issues such as climate change, WTO reform and TPP," said Wang. "There are areas where we can work together."
On a more personal level, some Chinese officials involved in trade negotiations with the Trump administration are supporting a Biden victory so that they can spend more time with their families, a person who is familiar with their thinking. China's trading team is exhausted, the person said.
It can be difficult for both sides to escape the pattern of confrontation, no matter who wins. Meng Wanzhou, managing director of Huawei Technologies Co., is still in Canada, waiting for a decision on a US extradition request. Beijing's plan to impose a security law on Hong Kong has sparked outrage in Congress and has jeopardized the countries' "Phase 1" trade agreement.
"Nowadays, people in China are becoming increasingly clear about the United States' goals," said Zhou, the former Chinese representative in Geneva. "We haven't reached the darkest hour in the relationship yet."
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)